Eliza Gilkyson explores the land of milk and honey

Rick Teverbaugh, May 2004

There are almost as many reasons to become a performer as there are performers. For singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, the reason was quite unique as well.

The late Terry Gilkyson was her father. He, too, was a songwriter. He was the author for such well-known songs as "Greenfields" and "The Bare Necessities," the latter from the Disney film "Jungle Book" earned him an Oscar nomination. He also contributed music to Disney's "Swiss Family Robinson," "Thomasina" and the "Aristocats." His songs were recorded by artists like Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, the Kingston Trio, Harry Connick Jr. He died nearly five years ago.

"He was more of a traditional folk singer than I am," says Eliza Gilkyson, who just released the country sounding "Land of Milk and Honey" on Red House Records, in a telephone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. "He was one of the first folk singers to write his own songs."

His total of penned, published material reached nearly 400 titles.

But it was his versatility as a writer that made the biggest professional impact on his daughter. "He appreciated other kinds of music," says Gilkyson. "He wasn't a traditional folk Nazi. He had a pop sensibility that really affected me. Maybe that's why I'm more of a singer/songwriter than a folk artist."

Yet there was more she took away from her experience with him as a performer as well.

"We sang a lot together," she says. "We'd sing in private just for friends. He was a very charismatic performer. As a little girl, I'd sit in amongst family and friends and watch him. I'd find myself creeping closer and closer to him. Finally I'd be able to look back and see the people and how he had grabbed their attention. That was also why he made a really darn good living."

Terry was born in Philadelphia to left wing intellectuals so he didn't have the same rural, rough upbringing as some of the folk singers of the day and as such some of them didn't include him in their professional circles. "He loved dark minor key melodies," says Gilkyson. "He didn't know music. He felt his way around in a song. Technically, he was a great bridge writer."

He was also pragmatic. When he needed a voice for his many demo tapes, he turned to Eliza. "It was cheaper than hiring somebody else," she says. "By the time I was 13, I had a pretty mature voice."

But to follow her father's footsteps onto the stage and into all the trappings that followed, she would have to shed some of her natural inclinations. The extroverted qualities that fit her father so comfortably seemed out of place when put on her young shoulders.

"I was very shy," says Gilkyson. "I was almost an invisible child. I was very unsure of myself. I was almost like a ghost."

Instead of being content with that persona, she found that singing was a way to cast aside, even if momentarily, that private shell she had created. "I invented a safe way to come out," she says. "I became more confident. Then it became of question of who am I?"

Was she the shy introvert or the performing extrovert? So far, the performer personality is winning out.

For a time, Gilkyson was classified as a New Age artist due to the atmospheric content of her 1987 release "Pilgrims." She even worked with New Age stalwart Andreas Vollenweider in Europe. In the mid-'90s, she released a pair of discs for small labels. But in 1999 she formed her own label and released "Misfits."

"I had stopped sending stuff to labels," says Gilkyson. "I actually went through a grieving process. Then I decided I could make a living out of this without (a label)."

But that was when Red House Records president Bob Feldman stepped in. "I sent them a studio tape of one of my dad's songs for a folk scene compilation," she says. "I got a call from Bob, and he asked what he could do to get me to sign with his label. Bob and I have a similar view. His ideas are really good. He has such a good ear. Sometimes he'll hear something and have an idea. I'll really ' like it so I have to get the band back together and record something different."

Red House has been her home since 2000 when she released "Hard Times in Babylon."

She acknowledges that while she enjoys the creative freedom she enjoys on Red House, there is a downside. "There are some limitations with a small label," she says. "I don't get to plug into a big machine to get the word out. I feel like I'm getting too old to get them (fans) one by one, but I still say 'Bring them to me.'"

Her third album for Red House is the newly-released "Land of Milk and Honey." In one way, it is a typical Gilkyson release with well-crafted melodies, striking lyrics and vocals full of crystal clear conviction and soul.

But in some other ways it is a departure.

"This is a political record," she says firmly. "I did know when I started it that it would be a more topical record. I'm so emotional about what's going on in our world. I think this is a really good time to take inventory on our society." The image on the album's cover is the first hint of what's inside. It is a photo from 1991 from Newsweek photographer Charles Ommaney of a young boy diving into a industrial waste pool for a swim. The shot was taken on the northern Albania/Kosovo border.

After seeing the photo, she was moved to write the gut-wrenching "Tender Mercies." "It is about what every mother wants for her kids," says Gilkyson. "Kids are dying for industrial reasons, due to the war machine and due to poverty."

She takes a strong stance against the war in Iraq for "Hiway 9," which opens the disc. Not all of the reaction has been positive. "I've been getting some hate mail," she says. "Some think that I've gotten too political. But I feel like it is important for me to speak out so others will feel like they can speak out. I think people who feel the way I do are being bullied. They are being accused of being unpatriotic. Though it has become more acceptable now that more and more of the truth has come out about our reasons for getting involved."

One song that fit very well into the album's landscape is an old Woody Guthrie tune titled "Peace Call." It was written between 1951 and 1953, sent to a publisher and then didn't come up for air again until 1963 when it was published in a Woody Guthrie songbook. It has never been recorded until now.

"I was hanging out with Jimmy LaFave and Slaid Cleaves on the Woody Guthrie spoken word and song tour," recalls Gilkyson. "We were invited to view the archives of his songs. He wrote a 1,000 songs, but only a few hundred have ever been recorded."

When she found "Peace Call," it was an unbelievable opportunity. "It was an undiscovered treasure," she says. "I wanted to find something that would fit. The melody was already there as well. I couldn't believe nobody had done it."

Guthrie had been an important voice in her musical upbringing. She read the biography "Bound to Glory." She loved his ranting, stream-of-consciousness style. But she didn't share his rough, rural upbringing. So she needed to adapt the song to her own style.

One of the ways she decided to do that was to call upon friends Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Iris DeMent for vocal assistance. "Each is a very dear friend of mine," she says. "All of them loved the idea of being on it."

The logistics of getting it all together was a bit more difficult. "All of them were working on their own records," says Gilkyson. "Patty is the only one who lives where I do. The vocals were recorded in different studios at different times. But it all worked out great. It sounds like we were all in the same room at the same time."

Adding to the pleasure of the new disc is the inclusion of daughter Delia and son Cisco Ryder in the mix as both instrumentalists and vocalists.

Early this year, Gilkyson was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame to join with people like Willie Nelson, Nancy Griffith, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely. "I was completely surprised and flattered that my hometown thinks of me that way," she says.

Her music is mostly unheard on the radio. The only format that really seems to pay much attention to her work is Americana, where her new outing was perched at number 25 on a recent chart.

"It is a broad genre in some way," says Gilkyson. "Certainly my music isn't as country as some in that genre. But it is natural-sounding and an organic production. That music will always survive. It does satisfy a large enough group that it will always find its way. That is one of the genres that will always be heard. In mainstream music, there are a lot of things that never worked for me. It is vapid and pervasive and degrading to women in a lot of ways. I like the path I'm on. I have some beautiful fellow travelers. It is a more interesting way to go about it."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com